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Rough Justice

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Feast of Christ the King

Daniel 7. 9 – 14 | John 18. 33 – 37

I expect that Matthew Bridges, the young academic from Durham, tried a few days ago on charges of spying in the UAE, and there sentenced to life imprisonment, will soon be released and allowed home.

Whatever the story – his treatment was rough – and his hearing and sentencing, all conducted in Arabic in the space of five minutes without the presence of his lawyer was shocking to say the least.

But shabby treatment, if I can put it as mildly as that, has not been unknown in our courts either. Remember the Birmingham Six, convicted and sentenced in 1975 to what was to be a 16-year stint in prison on the basis of brutally forced confessions, circumstantial evidence, blatantly fabricated police statements and the forensic evidence of one later assessed as incompetent.

In prison, one of the men, Paddy Hill, had written more than 1000 detailed letters appealing to lawyers, MPs and journalists, most of whom never replied. Of the few who did, almost all wrote, ‘I fear the odds against you are overwhelming.’

But in the end, all were pronounced totally innocent and on 14 March 1991 walked free.

If I had wanted, I could have tracked down the name of the judge who, on what proved to be the flimsiest of grounds, had sentenced the six. Few, except those immediately caught up in the trial will recall it today, but week by week, year by year, century after century, the name of the undistinguished, sometime Roman Governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate, who sent Jesus to his death in an atmosphere and under circumstances every bit as corrupt, rotten, dark and devious as those that surrounded the trial of the six – is remembered.

The higher Jewish religious authorities loathed Jesus. The ordinary people loved him and his teaching, especially when it exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘religious’. His generosity of spirit, reckless compassion and unfortunate association with the dregs of society troubled and appalled them. In their minds he had to go. He was a threat to all that they most cherished – their traditions, their status and their carefully maintained position with Rome, whose assistance was vital if their plans to do away with Jesus properly were to be accomplished.

The Trial of Jesus

We are familiar with the details of Jesus’ trial but perhaps so familiar that its conduct ceases to shock us. A disciple was turned, Roman soldiers were borrowed from the governor, disreputable characters enlisted to invent charges against Jesus, the inner council of Jewish leaders were summoned from their beds and all was carried out under cover of darkness – which a Jewish scholar has pointed out was only one of numerous reasons why the proceedings were illegal.

Today’s gospel begins with the delivery of Jesus by the Jewish authorities to Pilate. He had loaned them soldiers for the arrest and must have expected their return in the early hours with the prisoner, but the text makes clear he was hardly thrilled to see them. Occupier and occupied, then as now on the same land live in an uneasy state of mutual suspicion and mistrust – and as here – scarcely concealed contempt.

Immediately before our gospel, comes this sentence, ‘The Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman Governor . . . and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness, the Jews did not enter the palace, they wanted to eat the Passover’ (John 18.23) on which Archbishop William Temple commented long ago, ‘They were demanding the crucifixion of the Lord of glory but no one thought of that as defilement.’ And yet ironically in the Jews later effective blackmailing of Pilate – ‘Let this man go and you are no friend of Caesar’s’ (John 19.12) they unwittingly ensured that Jesus’ death got maximum publicity and Jesus’ prediction – ‘I when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself,’ (John12.32) – fulfilment.

Throughout John’s long, dramatic and carefully recorded account of the exchanges that followed between Jesus and Pilate, which minute the steps by which Pilate was persuaded to condemn one whom he believed to be innocent – Jesus, bound, bruised and very likely bloodied too – remains poised, quietly confident and in control – even playful. Asked by Pilate if he was King of the Jews, he replied, ‘Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?’ This drew forth the sharp riposte, ‘Am I a Jew?!’ Jesus did not deny he was a king but told his questioner that his kingdom was, ‘from another place.’

Another Kingdom

Pilate thought of kingdoms and of empire in terms of legions and law. The kingdom of which Christ spoke was ruled by the constraining love of God and active in the hearts of all who gave their allegiance to its king. Earlier in the evening, Jesus before the Sanhedrin, quoted to their horror from the book of Daniel and spoke calmly and confidently of the day when he would come on the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26.64)

Our Old Testament reading today, also from Daniel, Jesus would similarly have taken to himself. ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom one that will never be destroyed.’ (Daniel 7.14)

Those words are carved in Greek on the wall of the great and beautiful Umayyid mosque, once a cathedral in the centre of Damascus. Sometimes Christ’s kingdom makes its greatest strides, if that’s the right word, in the hardest places. I think of the priest from Maalula, a largely Christian town in Syria, who worked tirelessly through the past years to care for and keep together both Christian and Muslim, till he was kidnapped and brutally killed by ISIS. Two days ago, I received a report from Syria describing how so many of the churches there today are full, both Christian and Muslim finding within their walls friendship, courage and hope.

On New Year’s Eve 1944, in the German city of Stuttgart, German pastor and theologian Helmut Thieleke addressed an anxious and fearful congregation as bombs fell and said, ‘We know not what will come but in the end, we know who will come, and if the last hour belongs to him, we shall not care what the next minute brings.’

We live in uncertain, and some would say, dangerous times but that glorious conviction in Christ’s return and ultimate victory is no reason for us to opt out and abdicate responsibility for engaging with the sufferings and struggles of our time, rather it is a moment to ask individually and as a Christian community with humble devotion as subjects of our King, ‘Lord Jesus, what would you have us do for you today?’

‘Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Timothy 1. 17)